The ancient trope of the Roman Mare Nostrum, or Our Sea, is alive and well in Italy, ever at a cultural crossroads. Midway through the school year last year a pair of twins arrived in Eleanor’s preschool. “Mommy, they have almond eyes and are in English. They cry a lot,” she told me matter-of-factly. Muneem and Nissrine are Sudanese via Saudia Arabia, and are here with their mother Fatima, who recently finished a graduate program in Italy. They all speak English as a solid second language, and the twins have quickly adapted to Italian.
However, Fatima is now learning Italian, and is moving gamely through local culture with a brave, if novice, perspective. I have been brought in by the class representatives to help, from time to time, to interpret from Italian to English, and will confess that Fatima reminds me very much of an international student from my campus days. Yet this time around I am in a very different position, as a peer and a potential friend. My time is not regimented; I am not dispensing advice, or making difficult decisions. My role this time is to be a friendly presence, a cultural go-between navigating the spaces between Italy, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and the U.S., Muslim religious education, halal exemptions in the school cafeteria, the fondo cassa (class kitty) taken up for costs during the year, among others.
I am delighted that Fatima and I have formed a very casual, warm friendship, and last month she took me to a halal Moroccan restaurant in San Lorenzo with individual stew portions served in small tagines. That October afternoon, well before any return to lockdown or restrictions, was full of sunlight; the modest restaurant was open to the piazza, and the fix or so tables pressed into the compact space were almost all taken by workers and bike delivery people from Just East and Deliveroo and Uber Eats. Fatima bantered warmly with the owner and her sister behind the counter, who praised me for my five words of Arabic. When we finished our lunch, they brought sweetened fresh mint tea in clear glasses inside silver clasps. I thought it was funny that she did not know about the mosque in Florence, which is large and well-attended, not far from where we live. Since that lunch (which was cancelled and rescheduled a number of times, but which I refused to let go, not wishing to fall into the cliché of the insincere American), Fatima and I are genuinely happy to see one another at pick-up and dropoff, as I collect Eleanor, and she takes one twin each by the hand.
Today she told me that she’d taken the twins out of religion class, but that they seem to be learning religion every day. I understood at once that she meant not Islam, although to my mind, the religion class at the kids’ school is admirably ecumenical.
“But they still say these prayers and cross themselves. What are they doing?” she asked me.
“They learn it throughout the day. This is a Catholic school.”
“Yes?” Her eyes grew wide. I thought it best not to point out this basic distinction, or go into an explanation at that time of Italy’s designation of schools as pubblica, privata, or semi-privata. I went with the basics.
“Italy is very Catholic. This is a Catholic country.”
“It is? Why?”
“The Pope is in Rome.”
“Pope?” Wow, I thought, fuzzy on facts.
“Yes,” I said quickly. “Like the head imam of the Catholic Church. He’s the grand mufti here.”
“Oh, you know about imam and mufti!”
“But why the Pope is in Rome?”
I thought fast, fresh off my Greek post from yesterday, I got this. “There were five imams, but about a thousand years ago the imam in Rome decided he was the chief imam. So he became the head imam of the Western church. And the other four imams remained in the Eastern church.” I thought a moment. “Like Sunni and Shi’a Islam.”
Her smile was huge. “You know about Sunni and Shi’a! How?” This was a flattering assessment as I felt pretty certain I had mangled more than a few facts.
“Years in my field.” I smiled back. “But your kids will continue to say prayers they learn at school and cross themselves at meals. It is just a part of the culture. Over there,” I gestured behind me, “the Scolopi priests live. Regular imams.” Indeed, I had just learned this autumn from Jason that the priests are in residence on the west side of the building block. Always happy to share a newly-acquired fact.
“Is that who teaches them this?” She crossed herself. It looked like she was shooing a mosquito.
“Yes, they teach them that.”
“My sister who lives in London wants them to stop crossing themselves.” I wasn’t sure what to say about this, and in any case, Eleanor was first out and down the stairs screaming, “Thank you for saving me, mommy!” as though I had just sprung her out of solitary. I turned to wave farewell to Fatima, but she was already engulfed in a frenzy of twin affection.